Social & Politics

Designed Systems Embed Morality


“Evgeny Morozov vs. The Internet“ read the headline of the Columbia Journalism Review a few weeks ago. Indeed, the controversial 29 year old is taking on the manifold myths of “disruptive technologies” and unmasks them as marketing jargon. Instead of attributing an inherent force to technology that is capable of saving the world, he is advocating to bethink the social, political, and economic systems. And to get real.

Snappy terms like “Internet Freedom” and “Digital Diplomacy” claim that technology is benevolent. You are stressing its ambivalent effects on democratization and democracies. What’s this thing - “The Internet” - to you?

I don't believe there's much point in talking about “technology” as a causal force. I like to think in terms of systems – of social arrangements, meanings, and machines. Those can do many things: enslave, liberate, empower, disempower, make people sad or happy. Some of these systems – or assemblages or apparatuses as they are also called – can be tweaked such that they help forces that are not necessarily interested in democratization, be that dictators or corporations or whoever. I think this is a pretty simple message actually. There's, however, a certain sense of coherence that we attribute to a set of systems (or assemblages or apparatuses) that, for very complex reasons, we decided to call “the Internet.” I think that this sense of coherence – which, on most interpretations, also holds that “the Internet” is a natural ally of democracy – is false. Figuring out why we have these assumptions is a big challenge and that's why I spend more and more time working on some kind of intellectual and cultural history of how we talk about “the Internet” - and technology more broadly.

From the Twitter Revolution (Iran) to the Youtube War (Syria), the impact of social media in political turmoil has been widely propagated in the past years. What do you think about its part?

I'm increasingly reluctant to speculate on issues that ought not to be interpreted through the lenses of technology. To be frank, I have no clue about the political consequences of the Arab Spring, as the process is still very much on-going, especially in Egypt. To speculate about the role of social media in such a messy process would be silly – a mistake that many commentators have committed. There's no denying that technological infrastructure tends to play a major supporting role in political processes that are unfolding in most countries today. Who would be surprised by this discovery these days? But to understand the exact impact, you need to know something about the dynamics of those processes and then figure out what features of what tools and platforms are most conducive to speeding up or slowing down some of those dynamics. The idea that some wise guys in Silicon Valley or New York can tell you the impact of social media on the Arab Spring without knowing a single thing about the Middle East is laughable.

„For American spies, Big Data is like crack cocain“, you said once and were suggesting sending them on „big data rehab.“ The Snowden revelations have triggered a lively debate in Germany. What do you think of “information sovereignty“ and initiatives like the Schengen Cloud?

What's so lively about the debate in Germany? It's the same thing all over again: we have to pass new laws, we have to press the US to do something, we want a no-spy treaty. This is all like rearranging chairs on the Titanic. There's a huge structural change in how we think about transactions and enterprise, with reputation – and personal data – suddenly playing a very important role, perhaps, becoming a new form of currency. Under this new regime, we would want to pay for stuff with our own personal information, which we would also want to collect. No laws or tools would be of much help to people who want to self-disclose information about them for personal gain. This is an on-going transformation at the very heart of capitalism. Snowden's revelations hinted at that but few people have pursued this line of inquiry in the mainstream debate – in part because the debate is dominated by lawyers focused on constitutional rights and hackers who want to build privacy-protecting tools. What we need is to bring in some people with understanding of politics and economics. This is not a debate about legal transgressions – it's a debate about future of capitalism. Schengen Cloud or no Schengen Cloud, there's much more at stake here.

Kenneth Roth, the director of HRW, pointed at a particular problem: the erosion of trust in US Internet companies will trigger information sovereignty in authoritarian states and the capabilities of domestic censorship (eg. Russia, China or Iran). How do you view the recent statement by Silicon Valley giants demanding more protection from the NSA. Is it credible? Can it make a difference?

The argument about information sovereignty is a valid concern. On the other hand, I don't mind seeing Brazil or India taking active steps to think about alternative technological arrangements that would lessen their reliance on Silicon Valley and the distributed cloud-computing model. I don't much care for Silicon Valley giants. Much of what they provide right now, in my opinion, ought to be provided by a different model, with a much stronger public involvement. What they present to us as apps and start-ups could very well be end-points of public infrastructure that would operate on a very different, non-commercial logic.

Market logic has replaced morality. We are trading our data in exchange for a service. We get Gmail for free and non-encrypted - so Google can monetize with ads and it is easily traceable for NSA? Shouldn’t we finally reinstall the logic that good service can be paid in a currency which isn’t data?

Well, yes. Some services ought to be paid with our taxes; others with fees; some ought to be a combination of the two. And not all of them ought to be privately run. I think advertising is just a prelude to something much bigger; eventually both Google and Facebook will be in data-heavy industries like banking and insurance. And they will be much better and more ruthless than their existing competitors simply because they have access to so much data. I'm not sure I would trust Google to provide responsible banking services given how much it knows about customers.



17 years ago, Carl Sagan warned that society should pay more attention to science and technology, to avoid that eventually we don’t run things anymore but things run us. This call for scepticism resonates well with your latest book “Solutionism” in which you criticize that Internet corporations control the public debate and sell us expropriation and manipulation as progress. How can we bring the social, political, and economic systems back into the debate?

One way to do it, I hope, is to constantly reveal that the technological is also the political. Designed systems embed morality – and we need to understand how they do it. We also have to be critical of all the terms we take for granted today: innovation, disruption, and so on. Silicon Valley doesn't just come with apps – it also comes with words. Often, they take worthy causes – like free software – and turn them into more dubious ones – like open-source. We need to understand how that happens and we need to be very careful about the terms we use. But I think the big step that we must take is to resituate the technology debate in debates about economics and politics. This is the only appropriate context that matters: we don't just use iPhone apps to track our health – we use them to track our health at a time when Big Pharma companies hold more power than ever, when the idea of public health is crumbling, when patients are encouraged to distrust doctors and take matters into their own hands, when we are told that we have to proactively manage every potential disease before we see any symptoms. This is the right context for understanding a phenomenon like The Quantified Self: we can't make sense of it just by analysing decisions by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.

Evgeny Morozov will speak about “Solutionism” at DLD14. Tune in on the beat of our community on the DLDpulse and find regular updates on the DLD14 programme and speakers here.

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